Iraqi War Vets Still Want to Serve Despite Crippling Injuries
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 11, 2003 Among the many veterans who came to see President Bush pay tribute to the nation's veterans on the 50th anniversary of Veterans Day here today, three said they still are willing to serve their country, ready to go back to war and rejoin America's latest battle in Iraq.
They belie the traditional image of countless older veterans of bygone wars who packed the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery to hear the president speak. These three veterans are young and eager. And they all said they would rejoin their buddies back in Iraq tomorrow if it weren't for the fact that they are all paralyzed.
Army Spc. Johnnie Williams, 20, Army Sgt. Ken Dixon, 35, and Marine Sgt. Jason Wittling, 29, all served in Iraq and suffered their life-changing injuries after tragic accidents. Both Williams and Dixon have received medical discharges from their service; Wittling's is still in the process.
Williams, of Tampa, Fla., was in a humvee accident May 5 in Baghdad. He said his convoy was sideswiped by a civilian vehicle. He was ejected from his humvee, which then rolled over him. He said his faith in God tells him that one day he will walk again. Meanwhile, Williams said, he plans to go back to school and get his college degree, and he hopes he will start a family.
He said he tries not to let his injury get in his way or dampen his outlook on life. "I'm just trying to go about life the same way I did before," he noted.
Although he is glad to be back home, Williams said, "truthfully, I would rather be over there fighting next to my fellow soldiers. Every day I'm just wishing I could be there with them. They all have my blessing."
Dixon, of Hinesville, Ga., was a passenger in a vehicle that rolled over March 28 during a night mission about 20 kilometers from Baghdad. At the time, his wife, Allesais, was an Army sergeant stationed in Pakistan.
"My vehicle rolled over into a ravine, upside down," he said. "There were about six soldiers with me in the back. It was dark, visibility wasn't that good."
Dixon said he suffered a broken spinal cord in the accident. Four other soldiers suffered injuries too, and one of Dixon's buddies did not survive. "That was rough," he said somberly. "The way the accident happened, we were all stacked on top of one another. He pretty much died on top of me, and there was nothing that I could do because I was injured also."
Dixon said he has no regrets about serving in Iraq because he felt that "America needed to be there."
"I would go back if I could," he said. "The people need us there. We're trying to give them freedom."
Dixon said he hopes more can be done to protect the soldiers now serving in Iraq. "We're losing too many soldiers," he said. "And that really hurts me. To see it on the news or to read about it really hurts me."
Dixon said his injury was "just an unfortunate accident."
"Life goes on," he said. "You go through things, but you just have to learn how to deal with it."
Wittling, of Oceanside Calif., is married with two children: Cody, 6, and Emily 3. He broke bones in his back and neck when his humvee rolled over Sept. 17. He is paralyzed from the neck down. He said that while in Iraq he heard of people back home saying U.S. soldiers did not belong in Iraq.
"I've heard people say that we shouldn't be there," he said, but he doesn't agree. Toppling Saddam Hussein's regime "was a long time coming -- we needed to do it," he said. "I don't regret going over there. I regret getting hurt, but I don't regret going over there."
But despite their injuries, all three said they were pleased to be among the many who have served their country and were able to be at Arlington to hear the president express his gratitude.
The three men came to the event as guests of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which has more than 20,000 members. The organization has its headquarters in Washington and has chapters in 34 states and Puerto Rico.
"It shows that people care," Dixon said. "Over there (in Iraq), you hear so many different stories. Some people don't want you there, but to come here and see this gathering it makes you feel good."
Overwhelmed by all the patriotism being displayed, Wittling said he enjoyed talking with country music star Arron Tippin, who was seated next to him. Williams, who joined the military in June 2001, said, "I just finished telling my mom that it almost brings a tear to my eye just to see how many people actually come out to these sorts of ceremonies. This gives me a good feeling."